War and the media

BY ninan| IN Media Practice | 03/03/2003
As war looms over Iraq, the new media is changing the role of media in conflict.

Reprinted from the Hindu, March 2, 2003


Sevanti Ninan

IN the recent past, specific wars have become triggers for media explosions of specific kinds. The Gulf War in 1991 heralded the arrival of rolling television news for TV audiences in many parts of the world, and of satellite and cable transmission in India and its surrounding regions. The war in Kosovo was described as the first Internet war, after people inside a region cut off to TV coverage and journalists used the medium to send out messages to the outside world about what Slobodan Milosevic`s forces were doing to them. After September 11 the build up to two wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, has been chronicled in print and television, but mediated in the public mind by the Internet.

Some wars have also contributed to the ascendance of a specific media outlet: CNN became a household name internationally after the Gulf War, Al Jazeera benefited from the war in Afghanistan, and the current war in the making has already seen a new upstart, Arab Television (ATV), floated by a Scottish journalist, upstage Al Jazeera by getting what may be the last full-fledged Saddam Hussain interview.

In 1991, the Internet had not yet become a mass medium. Today it has. The latest Neilsen/Netratings puts the figure of people online at half a billion. It has had more impact in creating shifts in public opinion than the other two because it opens up different perspectives and viewpoints. Since September 11, the initial rush towards recognised news sources such as the BBC and CNN, is followed by web users searching further afield for explanation and context. Sites such as Afghanistan Online and Islamic Gateway have seen a thousand fold increase in their traffic, while web users also flocked to sites such as Stopwar.org and Amnesty International. For a media perspective, Counterpunch.org, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), mediachannel.org, and mediaresearch.org were available from across the ideological spectrum. And those who wanted to do their own analysis could go back and forth between the U.S. and French media to see how differing views on the war were taking shape.

The Internet first shattered the insularity of Western public opinion and is now moving on to shaping it in the countdown to the second U.S.-led war in 11/2 years. People of conscience can change history, thunder media activists on the Net. And add that they can put the public back into public policy. Elected representatives with publicly available Internet addresses can be targeted with opinions of those who voted them into power, as never before. The anti war movement in the U.S. and Europe has been in gestation for some months now, and if it finally reached a critical mass as demonstrated on February 15, there is consensus that relentless mobilisation over the Internet played a role.

Having said that, the dominant reality still is that media thrives on war-like situations, particularly since the advent of 24-hour television news. For the five new news channels poised to enter the market in India over the next few weeks, if George Bush`s war does go through, it will be a godsend. Perpetually breaking news: what more can a news channel ask for? People the world over are becoming news junkies, particularly after September 11. A BBC report says that news has actually overtaken porn online!

At this point in time, two relentless media marches are evident: one on the Web, furiously mobilising public opinion on both sides, and one in print and television. The latter are excited, this war promises more frontline access than ever before. The Pentagon has been conducting training camps for journalists. This time around they are prepared to take up to 500 right up to the frontlines.

The excitement has been viewed sardonically by critics. Wrote Robert Fisk, the Independent`s Middle East correspondent in January this year, "It looks like a rerun of the 1991 Gulf War. Already American journalists are fighting like tigers to join `the pool`, to be `embedded` in the U.S. military so that they can see the war at first hand — and, of course, be censored. Eleven years ago, they turned up at Dhahran in Saudi Arabia, already kitted out with helmets, gas capes, chocolate rations and eyes that narrowed when they looked into the sun, just like General Montgomery." He goes on to describe how one young reporter wore boots camouflaged with painted leaves for a war being waged in a desert. Journalists then, are set to become the butt of criticism and jokes, even as they sally forth to the frontlines.

A crisis also makes the media more partisan. Media owners decide the line their newspapers will take on the war, which is why critics argue that newspapers and TV stations are not reflecting public opinion. Rupert Murdoch declared support for George Bush over Iraq has meant that his newspapers are falling in line. Sneered Roy Greenslade in the Guardian, "After an exhaustive survey of the highest-selling and most influential papers across the world owned by Murdoch`s News Corporation, it is clear that all are singing from the same hymn sheet ... none, whether fortissimo or pianissimo, has dared to croon the anti-war tune. Their master`s voice has never been questioned." The Observer too poked fun at the pliancy of the Murdoch-owned press, across the board in the U.S., the U.K. and Australia.

Being pro-war has also meant being unabashedly rude about the French. Murdoch`s Sun published a French edition with a huge cartoon of Jacques Chirac morphing into a worm. And asked, "What`s the difference between toast and Frenchmen?" Answer: "You can make soldiers out of toast." The New York Post, also from the Murdoch stable coined the phrase, "the axis of weasels" to describe European countries opposed to the U.S. entering Iraq.

In the U.S. and the U.K., how much patriotism should be on display by journalists is still being debated. The British satirical magazine, Private Eye, has seen an increase of 25,000 in its circulation in the last two years, suggesting that people are drawn towards satire in the face of world-changing events such as September 11. Meanwhile the Daily Mirror which has been consistently anti-war, smartly got itself immense publicity mileage (over £100,000 worth, by one estimate) with its unofficial sponsorship of the February 15 anti-war marches in London and Glasgow. Marchers carried Daily Mirror " No war" posters which duly resulted in brand promotion in TV and news pictures around the world. The newspaper paid the £10,000 cost of hiring the big screen erected in London`s Hyde Park, and attached its name to the country`s biggest ever public demonstration.

In the 21st Century, the media`s self-scrutiny is greater than ever before, so painstaking documentation is available of biases and lapses across the ideological spectrum. Media watch sites both liberal and conservative, are taking apart the media`s record thus far. The conservatives at mediaresearch.org are busy counting the liberal media`s sins of commission. On one day, its CyberAlert had the following crop: "Another Saturday of protests led to more stories about how normal all the protesters were. The radical and extreme, of course, went unlabeled or unmentioned." The New York Times felt the protesters were wonderful, too. "Throwing a Party With a Purpose" and "A Festive Tone, But Somber Ideas" were a couple of the headlines. And, "The Institute for Policy Studies is a leftist outfit headquartered in Washington, D.C. but its Iraq expert went unlabeled during segments on CNN and CBS." ( CyberAlert, February 18)

On the same website, The U.S. Network ABC and its anchor Peter Jennings are regularly hauled over the coals. "ABC correspondent Terry Moran asked White House Press Secretary about Saddam Hussein`s `arsenal of germs and chemicals` getting to terrorists. Fleischer was surprised. Was the skeptical ABC News Division admitting Iraq had weapons of mass destruction?" And so on.

Meanwhile the watchdog FAIR has its own Action Alert against what it calls "misstatements and distortion of reality." Sample: "Treating the use of the U.N. weapons inspection team for espionage as a mere Iraqi allegation might be referred to as `Saddam Says` reporting. In fact, reports of the misuse of the inspectors for spying were made in early 1999 by some of the leading U.S. newspapers, sourced to U.S. and U.N. officials (FAIR Action Alert, 9/24/02)." Or, "The topic of sanctions is also often covered in a `Saddam Says` fashion. In fact, there are detailed reports on the deadly effects of sanctions that come from respected international health organizations and public health experts, not from the Iraqi government."

It also noted that there was a failure of scepticism in the mainstream U.S. media`s coverage of Secretary of State Colin Powell`s presentation to the United Nations Security Council. "This is of particular concern given that over the last several months, many Bush administration claims about alleged Iraqi weapons facilities have failed to hold up to inspection. In many cases, the failed claims — like Powell`s claims at the U.N.-have cited U.S. and British intelligence sources and have included satellite photos as evidence."

With the Internet making a range of information and documents available, journalists are expected to do their research before they make up their minds. They have Ralph Nadar on hand to document the Bush administration`s links with the oil lobby and the interests at stake, seeing that Iraq is sitting on 11 per cent of the world`s oil reserves. They have a host of independent information sites originating from the Arab world to provide them with alternate perspectives. And National Geographic last year carried the results of an exhaustive investigation that took over a year to do, of exactly what kind of weapons stockpiles which country has. It documented the chemical weapons stockpile of not just Iraq, but many other countries including the U.S.

Which is why Owen Gibson noted in the Guardian that it is increasingly becoming a hostile world for propaganda. "Propaganda in the historical sense is simply not an option. After all, when you can see opposing views at the click of a mouse, controlling the nation`s perception of a conflict becomes a lot more difficult." That is at least true of the U.S. and Western Europe where Net connectivity is high. TV channels like CNN have begun to take viewer opinions off the discussion boards on its website and put them on air, as `Viewer Perceptions", so differing points of view come through, even if it is a minority view.

The new media then, is changing the role of media in a conflict.

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